We may soon learn more about the extent to which the United States’ military has allowed its own soldiers to be exposed to a wide range of poisons — on purpose, in some cases, as part of chemical weapons experiments.
In what Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News calls “an unusual assertion of congressional authority over national security classification policy,” the Senate has included a provision in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (the annual bill that funds the military) that requires a limited amount of disclosure of records on toxic exposures.
“The Secretary of Defense shall declassify documents related to any known incident in which not fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one case of a disability that a member of the medical profession has determined to be associated with that toxic substance,” the bill, which was passed in the Senate on Sept. 18, states.
Perhaps the most notorious case of U.S. troops being exposed to a toxic substance is that of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which was used not by enemy soldiers, but by the U.S. government, as part of its “defoliation program,” which aimed “to remove foliage providing cover for the enemy.”
At least 11 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over the Vietnamese jungles where millions of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed during the war and where up to 3.8 million U.S. troops served during the years when “Operation Ranch Hand,” as the toxic herbicide spraying program was known, was in effect.
“For the purposes of VA compensation benefits, Veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides, as specified in the Agent Orange Act of 1991,” the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes on its website.
“In addition, VA has determined there is evidence of exposure to Agent Orange for Air Force and Air Force Reserve members who served during the period 1969 through 1986 and regularly and repeatedly operated, maintained, or served onboard C-123 aircraft (known to have been used to spray an herbicide agent during the Vietnam era).”
Yet while Agent Orange may be the most infamous chemical agent U.S. troops have been exposed to, it is far from the only one. It’s now known that the U.S. military engaged in human trials that it now describes as “unfathomable” during World War II to test chemical agents, including mustard gas, on some 60,000 enlisted men, in race-based experiments in some cases.
Nor did Vietnam mark the last time American soldiers have been exposed to toxic chemical agents. Though it did its best to obscure the scope of the problem for more than a decade, the Defense Department acknowledged in 2014 that hundreds of troops had likely been exposed to toxic substances including mustard gas and sarin from degraded chemical weapons stockpiles from the 1980s following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example.
The scope of the new provision included in this year’s NDAA is certainly not as broad as some would like to see — mostly due to its limitation to incidents “in which not fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed” — and given the nature of government secrecy, officials will still retain the capability, in practical terms, to prevent many potentially embarrassing public relations fiascos, including those involving toxic exposures, from coming to light. But the new measure seems a step in the right direction.
“This is not the first time that Congress has enacted such a legislative override of classification policy. It did so, most notably, in the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. Some other attempts to legislate a new standard for declassification were initiated but did not advance into law, as in the case of the Human Rights Information Act,” notes Aftergood.
“Though rare, successful legislative action of this kind demonstrates that Congress can be an effective participant in determining the scope and performance of the classification system. More than that, Congress has the power to help to correct errors and abuses in classification policy.”